Culinary, Spiritual, and Architectural Diversity in Melaka, Malaysia

After escaping the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur we were delighted to arrive in sleepy Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site two hours south from Malaysia’s hectic capital city. Melaka was colonized for centuries. Even today, the remnants of Portuguese, Dutch, and British occupation are evident in the architecture — most notably the Dutch Stadhuys town hall building, the Portuguese fort, and Chinese merchant homes and businesses.

Melaka, like Malaysia, encompasses a hodgepodge of cultures even today. During a mere 36 hours there, we journeyed ‘round the culinary world. First, there came Malay spicy noodles, then southern Indian fare served on banana leaf plates, and finally Nyonya Cendol, a Chinese shaved ice dessert with coconut milk, kidney beans, palm sugar syrup, and jade-green Cendol.

As we strolled down Jalan Tukang Emas Street, also known as Harmony Street, we were amazed by the diverse places of worship. First, there came an elaborate Chinese Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucionist Temple. Next, there was a white-washed mosque with a rich green roof, and finally a colorful Hindu temple.

As the sky turned a deeper grey and the sounding thunder of an approaching storm reached a mighty crescendo, we happened upon the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple ( 青云亭 ), which literally means ‘Temple of Green Cloud.’ The name was fitting given the thick clouds overhead, and the deluge of rain that soon fell from the heavens. It was a lovely place to seek refuge during the storm.

A caretaker inside was eager to share the history of the temple with us – pointing out that having been built in 1645, it was the oldest temple in Malaysia. We were astounded to learn that its elaborate wooden interior was constructed without the use of a single nail. Its materials were imported from China. As the rain danced on the rooftops and poured through the dragon-adorned downspouts, we watched as a mother taught her little girl how to pray at a shrine. Other faithful followers lit incense sticks and performed ritual kneeling. I imagined merchants and explorers from days bygone approaching the deity of sailors to pray for a safe and fruitful journey.

Once the rain departed Melaka’s skies, we ventured back onto Harmony Street, passing by the stark, white-washed Kampung Kling Mosque, which had a closed gate, and finally the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Hindu Temple, which is the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia.

The Hindu priest sitting outside Sri Poyatha Moorthi was shirtless. He wore a sarong-like garment and vibrant crystal beads. He ushered us inside. Our timing couldn’t have been better, for just as we walked through the temple’s front door, a drummer started tapping away, as did a horn player. The music was riveting, and the service that followed felt festive (especially if contrasted with the sedate Catholic services I attended as a child).

For the next thirty or so minutes, followers, as well as the priest’s assistant, ushered us from deity station to station, until we had revolved around the temple’s perimeter twice. The ceremony was circus-like, with flickering flames, flower garlands, and followers kneeling to statues of ganesh, a sacred cow, and other deities.

As we returned to our temporary home away from home – a small hotel in Melaka’s China Town – we digested the day’s culinary and spiritual journey around the world. Georgetown, Penang, would be our next destination.

Where in the World?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

19 thoughts on “Culinary, Spiritual, and Architectural Diversity in Melaka, Malaysia

    1. Hello Pheebz, a pleasure to meet you! The hodgepodge of culinary offerings was certainly a surprise treat for us during our week in Malaysia. In Georgetown, there were delightful food courts with vendors offering even more culinary offerings than those I described here – also Filipino, Thai, American steaks, etc. What’s also a joy is seeing how the dishes are presented in Southeast Asia. The use of banana leaves to make decorative fans, placemats and saucer liners is wonderful, as is the inclusion of a suji leaf’s natural coloring to tint banana pancakes green. Look forward to getting back in the kitchen soon to try out these techniques!

      1. You’re certainly selling it to me! I’m in Japan until August and would really like to explore some of SE Asia whilst I’m so close. Where else would you recommend?

      2. Pheebz, of course, it depends on what you’re looking to do! My husband and I had an extraordinary time in Bali prior to arriving in Malaysia. We spent three weeks in Jimbaran and Ubud, and found that the quiet beauty we found there (not only in the people, but also the incredible scenery and cultural practices) was just what we needed to relax. If you need some ideas, feel free to check out my numerous posts from Bali… How exciting that you’ll be in Japan until August! Are you teaching or on business there?

      3. Thanks for the tip – will definitely investigate Bali!

        I love Japan – it’s my third time out here. I’m currently teaching whilst my partner is on a scholarship programme at Kyoto University. Have to say, I prefer the big cities to Kyoto, but the temples/gardens are beautiful, especially as it’s just been the autumn leaves season.

        Wishing you luck and many fun times on your big trip! I’ll be following your progress :)

      4. I’ve heard wonderful things about Japan from my husband, who spent several months there. I wish we could make it there during this trip as I’d also love to see the dreamy landscapes and lovely temples, but I think it’s a place we’ll visit apart from this grand adventure. For another authentic locale, do consider Laos! I was there in 2009 and really loved Luang Prabang.

        What are you teaching?

    1. Hello, Pamela. It’s so nice to see you here! Thanks for subscribing, too. Yes, at times we get a bit of sensory overload, but we’re also so overwhelmed by the sheer joy of exploring these new corners of the world. We realize what a tremendous opportunity this is. I received your wonderful, lengthy email and look forward to responding to you in detail soon. So glad to hear from you!

    1. Isn’t that a fun, organic table accessory, Marina? That Indian restaurant quickly became our favorite while in Malacca. In fact, we ate there three times in two days. Later, we learned that it was a hotspot that visitors from Kuala Lumpur trek to whenever on business or holiday in Malacca. The food was so delicious and cost about $1.50 each!

  1. This is the slowest reply in the world – took a big break from blogging over the Xmas period!
    Will definitely consider Laos as well (although I fear my travel list is getting far too long….)

    If you can make it to Japan on your trip, I would definitely recommend it!! I’m no expert but if you need any tips/advice, feel free to contact me.

    1. Now it’s my turn to apologize for an escargot-paced reply. :) Thanks for your willingness to help with trip-planning for Japan. I don’t think we’ll make it there on this sabbatical, but definitely soon thereafter!

  2. It’s wonderful to see you guys eating on banana leaves as plates. I realize that other Asian countries practice this as well, but not so much in the Philippines, not that I rememeber…

    Also, I always wondered if Malaysian’s eat with their hands since Filipinos are descendants of the Malay people. Awww, I bet it was soooo much fun!!!

    1. Karen, we have so much to learn about the Philippines! I was surprised to hear you mention that Filipinos descend from the Malay people – how fascinating! The Malaysians of Indian ethnicity in Malacca definitely ate with their hands at this restaurant and elsewhere. For some reason, we had a challenging time finding a large number of restaurants with Malay cuisine; Indian and Chinese food seemed much more plentiful. So very tasty! On a side note, we’re still trying to find typical food in the Philippines. A lot of American-type fast food restaurants seem to reign supreme. Do you have any recommendations for specific traditional dishes?

  3. Hi Tricia,

    Good to hear from you. You have taken lovely pictures of Malacca. All your choice of photos are beautiful too. I am glad you and Shawn enjoyed the dishes here. Hope to keep in touch. take care. Bernie

    1. Hello again, Bernie, a pleasure to hear from you; thanks for your kind words. The Malaysian dishes were fantastic, with the banana leaf thali restaurant in Malacca being one of our trip’s highlights. Enjoy the sunshine there, and here’s hoping our paths will cross again. :)

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